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Beyond the Fourth Wall: Interacting with the Audience during Spoken Word

Originally written in July 2014

This week, at The Big Slam event at 24:7 Festival, I performed a new story called "I Didn't Want This, I Didn't Ask for Any of This" - a three minute 2nd person perspective anxiety tale of cinematic existential woe. The whole piece was directed at one particular audience member who I gradually got closer and closer to, before breaking down in front of her and ending the story with a desperate hug. I've done this kind of thing before.

Way back in 2011 when I performed Re:Tale with Bad Language I wrapped an audience member up in a till roll (from which I was reading the story - another morbidly humorous tale of existential woe), and I've done a couple of Choose Your Own Adventure gigs which rely on a single volunteer to join me at the mic. I'm finding more and more that I kind of love doing it. Not only does it displace some of the attention from you the performer - which has a relaxing and strengthening effect - it takes the audience into a place they were not entirely expecting to go: beyond the fourth wall. And when boundaries break and the clowns are let loose, the atmosphere changes.

In different audiences, at different types of performance, audience interaction is expected - almost demanded. At stand-up comedy, interaction is an integral part of the whole damn thing, even at the most basic level of constructing a joke to trigger a laugh. I recently saw Derren Brown's live show where he uses a frisbee to select his playthings and as soon as he flung those things out the giggles rose and the tensions mounted. Literally anything could happen: no-one was safe. Which is strangely liberating.

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing Irish theatre company ANU perform their latest show Angel Meadow at an decrepit building in Ancoats, just outside Mcr city centre. ANU are famed for their immersive, interactive, and discomforting approach to theatre. Within five minutes of Angel Meadow, the audience were grabbed, split up and pulled into different rooms for different (and intensive) experiences. I joined an Irish gang, agreed to eat Satanic bread, witnessed a man in a pig mask feeding bleach to a girl, and was told to kiss a woman (which I did - a light peck on the cheek). With ANU there was never a fourth wall in the first place.

But, of course, there are still boundaries to audience interaction and ANU quite brazenly define their own boundaries - which may not align with everyone else's. While the fourth wall may be demolished with a call for volunteers or a step off the stage, there is still a protective sheath between performer and spectator that is a thin and fragile thing.

Last weekend I was on holiday in Edinburgh and we booked ourselves on one of those ghost tours they have up there. Well good fun. We got a decent history lesson about the Royal Mile and Greyfriar's Kirkyard, then we descended into the gloom of the frankly quite terrifying South Bridge vaults. The tour guide switched from history mode into full on ghost mode and we were suddenly in the presence of umpteen spirits, entities, poltergeists. There was a vault full of (real) white witch's paraphernalia, another with a stone circle which we were expressly told not to enter and a final vault with a very nasty poltergeist who scratches women. I'm a complete skeptic when it comes to ghosts, but even I was creeped out. Of course, this was all generated by the excellent audience manipulation of the tour guide and his cool, serious and respectful attitude to the absolutely real ghosts that were absolutely in there with us. From the off, there was no question that these spooks were the real deal - and the guide had many anecdotes to prove it, all of which were plainly told as if they had happened only yesterday. For three members of our audience, that was enough. Before we had even stepped foot in our first vault, they had to be taken back out to the relative safety of Edinburgh's not-haunted outside streets. Of course, for the rest of us, that only heightened the nervous tension.

On the ghost tour and with ANU, the audience were transformed from passive observers to active participants and that transformation is roughly grabbed by a good performer and twisted to the advantage of the performance as a whole. The result, usually, is enhanced immersion - even if it is only one audience member that is selected. There is a sudden sense by the whole audience that the safety curtain has been burned away and the auditorium doors are padlocked. It is suddenly quite possible that no-one will escape with their lives intact. And, in the face of that, laughter will usually flow more readily.

On the occasion of the Big Slam I chose well. The victim was in the right seat, it was clear she had enjoyed the night as a whole and she looked very much game for a laugh. Afterwards I saw her in the foyer, passed on my apologies and she gave me a big hug. Of course that is not the reaction everyone is going to have, but it was a particularly nice moment for me.

The experience has got me thinking: what's the best advice for doing live literature audience interaction? Here's 7 thoughts:

1. Identify Someone Early On

If you have time, pick someone well in advance of your performance. Keep an eye on them to make sure they seem like they will be happy to go along with it. Have a back-up in case they bolt.

2. Pick someone who looks up for it

Don't pick the guy lurking at the back with his arms folded in the shadows. Even if you think you can bring him into the joy of the audience. Some people hide for a reason and usually that reason is to absolutely avoid this sort of situation. Pick someone giddy, happy and near the front.

3. Pick someone easily accessible

Seriously. Give yourself a break with the logistics.

4. Don't soften the performance: go for it

Do what you rehearsed, don't bottle it and ease back. You might be surprised how much the chosen one will go along with, especially if you've chosen well. Within reason of course. Don't get gropey.

5. Don't pick someone you know

This is key I think. Don't plant a stooge, don't make a beeline for your best friend. Unless there is no way around it, pick on a stranger. If you are asking for a volunteer, look for an unfamiliar hand. With a friend, the fourth wall is often a fake wall - one of those thin Japanese paper wall things. They know who you really are and who you are not. A stranger has no clue. That is infinitely more exciting.

6. Don't blame them if anything goes wrong

Also very important. Take responsibility for your own work. If something goes wrong it is your fault, not theirs. I've seen spirit mediums blame their victims when a loved one doesn't come through or the cold reading doesn't quite come off and its horrid for everyone involved (especially the spirit I expect). Whatever happens you are in control - and you are answerable to mistakes.

7. Thank them afterwards - and get the rest of the audience to give them a clap.

Give them that final payoff of being thanked for their performance. As they leave the stage, let them get a round-of-applause. Good sport, good sport. See them afterwards and personally thank them. Everyone will leave with a warm and rosy feeling :)

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